This article is part of the How to Pray series.
6 Ways to Pray
How can we pray for unity across denominational lines? I suggest we do so by using John 17 as our guide along with some observations from our contributors along the way.
1. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be valued highly.
Jesus’s prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21) is often cited as a mandate for Christian unity and the fact that these words come from one of the final earthly prayers of our Lord gives them special importance. While we do not place a premium on unity for unity’s sake, we can pray that we will value unity in a way that values the prayer of our Lord. Dean of Beeson Divinity School Timothy George offers the appropriate context for such a prayer:
While I recognize myself as a Protestant, an evangelical, and a Baptist, none of those labels defines my spiritual and ecclesial identity at the most basic core level. Being an evangelical Protestant, a Baptist, indeed a Southern Baptist, are all important markers of my place within the community of faith, but there is a more primary identity I must confess: I am a Trinitarian Christian who by the grace of God belongs to the whole company of the redeemed through the ages, those who are ‘very members incorporate in the mystical body’ of Christ (Book of Common Prayer).1
So, we can pray for visible unity as far as we are able to express it and we can pray for the ongoing success of other denominations, knowing that all who have repented from sin and are trusting in Christ alone belong to the same Lord.
Denominations, although often maligned, are important for the continued health and vitality of the church. Contributors from a variety of evangelical traditions share their personal stories for the sake of unity across denominational lines.
2. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be defined biblically.
In the same breath that Jesus prayed for our unity, he also prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Denominations exist in part to allow Christians to cooperate with others of like mind but this does not mean that all other denominations are wrongheaded. There is no unity where God’s word is not honored. Bryan Chapell affirms the importance of defining unity biblically:
Above any Presbyterian distinction are my evangelical convictions. I need to know that a church’s people believe Jesus is their Savior from sin and are living for him before I will consider being a part of that church (Rom. 3:25–26; 10:9). It is simple for me: the church is the body of Christ (Col. 1:24). If a group identifying itself as the church does not evidence his presence through humble dependence upon his means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer) and faithful obedience to his commands, then Jesus is not really honored there and that gathering of people is not really a church. But where Christ is loved and lived, there really is a church, even if it may be different in expression from my tradition or preference (Eph. 4:4–6, 12, 16).2
We can pray for our brothers and sisters in different denominations to be faithful to Scripture as they represent Christ’s church and we can pray that they will remain faithful even when others within their denomination decide otherwise.
3. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be understood evangelistically.
Jesus prayed that our unity would also be a testimony such that “the world may believe you have sent me” (17:20). Partly reacting to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that unity is primarily visible, we Protestants have not always appreciated how a visibly divided church can have a negative impact on the world at large. Jesus’s prayer reminds us that the world is watching to see what God has done in Christ, and that our unity or disunity will factor into their conclusions. Chris Morgan, citing Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:8–11, explains how church unity impacts the world and the cosmos:
God is going to do cosmically what he has already done for individuals in Christ; and God is going to do cosmically what he has done corporately with the Jews and Gentiles. All things in heaven and on earth will be brought together in Christ; all things will highlight Christ as the focal point of the cosmos. So not only is Christ the Savior of sinners and the Head of the church; he is the goal of the entire cosmos! . . . Amazingly, it is the church as God’s visible exhibition that proclaims these cosmic purposes. In a sense, the church preaches Christ not only to humanity in the verbal proclamation of the gospel, but also to the entire cosmos through the visible display of unity.3
Pray that as we demonstrate unity across denominational lines that non-believers will be drawn to the same Savior who drew us together.
4. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be practiced sympathetically.
Before Jesus prayed for us, he prayed what only he could pray about himself: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). As much as we might think that our denomination is closer than others in its adherence to biblical truth, none of us believes that we are perfect interpreters or perfect practitioners of God’s Word. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory in this regard. We should therefore be humble in our dealings with others, particularly as we disagree on non-salvific issues of the faith.
For example, I am a Southern Baptist who affirms my denomination’s stance on the pastorate: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000).
Byron Klaus, a Pentecostal believer says:
My dad and mom were both ordained and served as co-pastors of the three congregations. . . . I actually did not even know that other Christian traditions had problems with ordained women until I experienced that perspective in seminary. My mom, defending her place as an ordained woman minister, never included any type of angry polemic. She simply said that God had called her; who was she to reject God’s call? She added that there were places she went to preach that men were afraid to go or thought were beneath them. She would say there were people “perishing” simply because men would not go to those places.4
Though I could not in good conscience belong to a church where the pastorate includes men and women, I can understand why Klaus believes otherwise. What is more, I appreciate him for following his beliefs in this regard and pray that he would offer similar sympathy towards my position. Jesus’s prayer again helps us toward this end: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).
The world may not know why we differ over issues of polity, baptism or spiritual gifts, but the world should know that we are united in our pursuit of holiness.
5. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be displayed boldly.
Jesus prayed not for the world, but for those who would believe: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). Moreover, he prayed, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Christians may be divided into denominations over doctrinal issues, but we should be united in our opposition to sin in our own lives and evil in this world.
Timothy Tennent cites John Wesley’s contribution to Methodist thinking in this regard:
Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins we avoid. Methodists believe that even if you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid; it’s about fruit we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed. We no longer have a view of holiness that is legalistic, private, negative, and static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but a true vision of the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign! The witness of the Spirit that confirms faith becomes in Wesley the power of the Spirit to produce fruit and to transform the world—to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!5
The world may not know why we differ over issues of polity, baptism, or spiritual gifts, but the world should know that we are united in our pursuit of holiness. We can, therefore, pray that denominations will not buckle to the threats of the age but will instead take a stand for holiness in all spheres of life.
6. Pray for unity across denominational lines to be anticipated joyfully.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus frequently mentions that his “hour has not yet come” or “an hour is coming,” referring to his saving work on the cross. In this prayer, however, he states, “Father, the hour has come” (John 17:1). One notes the sense of longing that Jesus has as he prays, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). We too will share in that glory, as Jesus prays, “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). When we finally see Christ in all of his glory, it will not be as Anglicans or Presbyterians, but simply as Christians. David Dockery points us to this reality by pointing back to a sermon delivered by George Whitefield in 1740:
“Father Abraham, Whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians?”
“Any Independents or Seceders, New Sides or Old Sides, any Methodists?”
“No! No! No!”
“Whom have you there, then, Father Abraham?”
“We don’t know those names here! All who have come are Christians—believers in Christ, men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony . . .” 6
Praying for unity across denominational lines is not a path to empty ecumenism on this side of heaven; rather it is an opportunity to respond to Jesus’s prayer for his church, of which he is the head and is himself its Savior.
- Why We Belong, ed. Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 94.
- Ibid, 179.
- Ibid, 24.
- Ibid, 154-155.
- Ibid, 154-155.
- Ibid, 210.
Anthony Chute is coeditor with Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson of Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity.
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